Bob Garfield in a September, 2017 performance in Philadelphia of his one-man show, "Ruggedly Jewish" (Photo/Michael Gottlieb)
Bob Garfield in a September, 2017 performance in Philadelphia of his one-man show, "Ruggedly Jewish" (Photo/Michael Gottlieb)

In one-man show, NPR’s Bob Garfield asks: To Jew or not to Jew?

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Bob Garfield, who will be bringing his one-man show “Ruggedly Jewish” to Berkeley later this month, was in Los Angeles a while back when he bought a mezuzah for his parents’ new house.

As he walked out of the Judaica store, someone asked whether he was going to buy a scroll. “‘Don’t you want the scroll for the mezuzah?’” they asked. “And I said, ‘What, it isn’t loaded?’ They said it was sold separately.”

Garfield said that encounter sums up his life as a mostly secular Jew, and goes to the heart of his show.

“I guess you could say for most of my life I’ve been a mezuzah without a scroll,” he told J.

Garfield, 62, has taken to the stage after a long career as a media analyst and commentator on everything from politics to talking cats. He is co-host of “On the Media,” a weekly show that originates at WNYC in New York and can be heard locally on KQED 98.5 FM at midnight Mondays and 2 p.m. Sundays.

The author of five books and a commentator who has spoken at venues ranging from the Smithsonian to the Grand Ole Opry to a kickboxing ring in South Africa, he made the move to performing after giving up on writing a memoir.

“It is the harvest of an attempt to write a memoir that was funny and surprising and entertaining, and did not work as a memoir partly because I’m just not quite famous enough and partly because I don’t have some incredible life challenge that I’ve overcome to become a hero,” he said.

“I gave up the memoir halfway through because I just did not have the standing. But I was approached by a booking agent … and it made me think that the memoir really did have a place, not in print but on stage.”

The show is in large part a personal therapy session in which Garfield talks about his childhood and decades of his “attempts to be assiduously secular.” But it also mixes in comments on American culture and politics in the age of Trump, as well as stories about the oddballs he’s met and written about over the years.

“Ruggedly Jewish,” which already has played in Philadelphia and Chicago and will hit New York before it comes to the UC Theatre in Berkeley on Jan. 27, touches on everything from a woman with a talking cat to Garfield’s bris to the right-wing rally in Charlottesville in August.

Since it’s a self-exploration, much of it involves his Jewishness — or lack thereof. He said the title of the show is a joke because “I am so not rugged” and because he has spent years trying to not be identified as a Jew.

“There has been this lifelong struggle for me to figure out who exactly I am, what kind of Jew I am, and much of which involves running away from Jewish culture as fast as I could for 35 years,” he said. “I don’t care about the Torah, but I do care deeply about lox and bagels.”

Garfield has been married twice — first to a Catholic and then to a Serbian Orthodox. He begins the show with a story about going on a hunting trip with his Catholic in-laws. He won’t say how it ends, because he said that would ruin the punch line.

“The stories are sometimes horrifying, sometimes hilarious,” he said. “There’s gunplay, singing and dancing. It’s all me. I think the consensus is that I’m far and away the best, and the worst, in the cast.”

Though he said he doesn’t devote a lot of time to President Donald Trump until the end of the show, Garfield said “Ruggedly Jewish” could not have been written in an earlier time.

“It wasn’t until Trump happened that I had the answer to the questions at the heart of all this: Am I a good enough Jew? Have I betrayed Judaism? Has Judaism betrayed me? Can you be a non-believer and a Jew at the same time?” Garfield said. “All of those questions that I didn’t have answers to, and now I do. Our current political moment has led to answers to questions I’ve been asking for 50 years.”

Ruggedly Jewish: An Evening with Bob Garfield,” 8 p.m. Jan. 27 at UC Theatre Taube Family Music Hall, 2036 University Ave., Berkeley. $45.

Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster z"l was J.'s senior writer from 2016-2019.